Soweto starts its water war

A group of Soweto residents is challenging the very basis of South Africa’s water for households strategy. The residents, who filed papers in the Witwatersrand High Court against the City of Johannesburg and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, are asking that the government’s capped free water allowance as well as prepaid water meters be declared unconstitutional. The residents’ legal team is headed by respected jurist, advocate Wim Trengove SC.

“We are sure this case will bring about a change in policy,” said Dale McKinley, an activist assisting the Soweto residents. “The current water policy is simply not sustainable for a large part of South Africa.”

Critics such as McKinley have described South Africa’s free basic water strategy as discriminatory against the poor, who have to do without water if they use more than the six kilolitres, or 25 litres a person a day, because they cannot afford to buy more.

According to Peter Gleick, a world expert on water rights, international best practice dictates that at least 50 litres should be allocated per person. An average bath for one person consists of 50 to 60 litres, which means just one person taking 10 baths a month would have used up an entire household’s supply of free water.

The residents, supported by the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University and the Freedom of Expression Institute, also dispute the controversial installation of pre-paid water meters in their suburb, Phiri.

For the past three years Phiri has been a hotbed of activism in what residents call their battle for water. Dissidents have been detained and others injured during confrontations with the police over imposed household pre-paid water meters.

These were installed in Phiri as part of the pilot project for the City of Johannesburg’s Operation Gcin’amanzi, a multimillion-rand initiative to upgrade the water supply facilities in Soweto. The meters automatically switch off the water supply once the free limit of water has been reached.

The government has argued that South Africans have to save more water in a country that is water-stressed. The Johannesburg council insists billions of litres have been saved in Soweto because of the meters. But McKinley says households consume the lowest amount of water. The true water culprits were mines and agriculture.

“We have tried all avenues available to negotiate with the city council about the problems,” he said. “But the council laughed it off and stuck to their line that the meters are the way forward. Now we are fighting it in the courts.”

The court papers filed by the five residents — Lindiwe Mazibuko, Grace Munyai, Jennifer Makoatsane, Sophia Malekutu and Vusimuzi Paki — tell horrifying stories of already overloaded households living in poverty, trying to balance their water consumption.

Paki relates how his family tried to extinguish a fire that engulfed the home of one of his backyard tenants with rainwater in the middle of the night, because his allowance of water from the prepaid meter had dried up. Two kids died as a result of the fire.

Another resident, Munyai, did not have water to clean her Aids-infected niece’s soiled blankets.

Before the meters were installed, residents were paying a flat rate of R149 a month for an unlimited amount of water. The council claims that the new system had brought down bills by at least R100 a month per household.

Patrick Bond, a professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal school of development studies, argued in his affidavit that councils should ideally calculate usage on a per-person, not per-household basis as Johannesburg was doing currently.

Bond also argued “the ANC’s use of the word ‘household’ — as in a Western-style nuclear family — meant that the free services were automatically biased against large families”. Families in the suit consist of seven to 20 people in a household. He said that in families caring for Aids patients, water consumption would be even higher.

Bond adds that a possible rollout of prepaid meters was proposed in Cape Town early this year. But the city took a policy decision not to implement prepayment for water because it might have a negative social impact on the communities.

Other towns where the prepaid meters have been implemented included Mogale City, Nelspruit, Kagiso and Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape, while there was talk of the Tshwane city council introducing the meters in Soshanguve and Atteridgeville.

The City of Johannesburg and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry declined to comment, saying they did not want to pre-empt the case.

A thirst for justice

Jennifer Makoatsane (36) is one of the Phiri residents taking the state to court over the installation of prepaid water meters.

She is unemployed, poor and angry with the government. “I still can’t believe that our own people are doing this to us,” says Makoatsane.

Since 2003 her nine-member family has had to survive on 6 000 litres of free government-provided water a month. Her family consumes their ration in 14 days. For the remainder of the month refilling costs them close to R50. With the family dependent on her mother’s R850 monthly pension, it is clear that there is no spare change for water lying around.

Sanitation and laundry simply drink up the family’s water allowance.

Although Jennifer and her sisters use as little water as possible for laundry, they often have to beg for rinsing water from their neighbours.

In 2004 the Makoatsanes’ water problems reached breaking point during the funeral of Jennifer’s father.

Makoatsane says relatives who attended the funeral used up all their montly allowance, because they did not understand the water situation in Phiri. “Fights broke out because I kept on telling people that our water was not enough and they did not listen to me. It was a bad way to say goodbye to my father.” — Monako Dibetle

A global battle

Worldwide, 1,3-billion people do not have access to safe drinking water while a further 2,4-billion are denied proper sanitation. The United Nations says this silent emergency kills 6 000 people daily.

Research shows the majority of water meter users are the poor and unemployed.

The system is used in countries such as Namibia, Brazil, India, Nigeria, Mexico, Australia, Russia, China and even the United States.

The use of prepaid water in the United Kingdom was declared illegal in 1998. Uruguay and The Netherlands have not only outlawed the use of water meters, but also the privatisation of water supply.

In the famous Bolivian water war Cochabamba province’s water was privatised in 1999. The consortium controlling the area’s water then raised the price by 400%, while making it illegal to use water from natural springs or wells.

In the resulting protests a teen was killed and scores of people were arrested. In April 2000 the Bolivian government broke its contract with the consortium.

South Africa briefly abandoned the use of water meters after a devastating cholera outbreak in 2000 in KwaZulu-Natal that killed several hundred people. — Katie Wilter

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